Suriname, a South American land covered by rainforest, is gambling that protecting nature will pay off better than destroying it. But this admirable plan depends on creating comfortable eco-resorts that can co-exist with rugged wilderness. American travel writer Joe Kane has his doubts and sets off in a canoe to find out if it’s possible
Funny how a jaguar can make a forty-foot canoe feel like a piece of driftwood. We were puttering along the Tapanahoni River, 150 miles from the nearest road and an hour before sunset, when a male cat laid down a blast of glandular musk so powerful I could smell it out in the middle of the river, fifteen yards from either bank. Though hidden in a forest wall as dense and inscrutable as concrete, the jaguar, the most powerful predator in the Amazon, surely had us in his sights. His message was clear—I am the Man—and it defined the moment: Him, river, us. And bush. A lot of bush. Specifically, the Sipaliwini district of Suriname, a virtually trackless expanse of tropical rainforest nearly the size of Florida and, hands down, one of the wildest places on the planet.
Okay, so you don’t know where Suriname is. Don’t worry about it. Nobody else does, either. When I mentioned that I would be going there, people said things like, “It’s next to British Honduras, right?” or “Used to be called the Congo?” Suriname is the answer to a great trivia question (“What did the Dutch get for Manhattan?”), but nobody knows that, either. Called Dutch Guiana until it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, Suriname is tucked into the northeast corner of South America, between Guyana and French Guiana. The Atlantic lies to the north and Brazil to the south.
My first night there, in the capital, Paramaribo, I sat on the veranda of my hotel and pored over two different maps with the Gunther cousins—Romeo, a professional guide, and Neville, the Suriname coordinator for the Amazon Conservation Team, an environmental group based in the United States. The Suriname River runs north to south, dividing the country in two. The Gunthers and I proposed to follow the river upstream from the coast for 150 miles. Then we’d continue south by bush plane almost to the Brazilian border, to the Indian lands in the hills of the Guyana Shield.
Rainforest covers almost ninety percent of Suriname, and by establishing an enormous system of parks and reserves (including one almost the size of New Jersey), this poor but vibrant country has made a huge bet: that its forests hold more value wild than developed, and that tourism will help transform it from economic sow’s ear to Gore-Tex purse. But I had my doubts. Could a genuine rainforest experience and a modest degree of comfort coexist? Was it possible, in Suriname—to get right next to the Big Wild and still be able to shower it off at night?
As we jounced through Paramaribo in a car at the start of our journey, I had to remind myself that I was in “Latin” America. We passed a Muslim mosque, a Jewish temple, a Hindu cultural centre (CE), Dutch Colonial storefronts, Indonesian restaurants. We crossed the broad, brown Suriname River and stopped at a vegetable stand: bok choy, gingerroot, Chinese long beans. My Spanish drew puzzled looks, but when I spoke English, everyone understood me. When we turned south along the river and the bush grew so thick you needed a machete to enter it, I saw tiny clearings, tin-roofed shacks, and faces out of Nigeria or Uganda—the descendants of Maroon slaves who had escaped their Dutch masters in the eighteenth century and fled up the Suriname.
Two hours down the road, acres of rusting metal—the hulk of an aluminum plant that Alcoa had abandoned in 1998—squatted in the forest like a lost city. Behind the plant rose Afobakka Dam, a long, brown wall of dirt, rock, and cement, and behind the dam sat Brokopondo Lake, one of the largest reservoirs in the world. Alcoa built the dam in 1964 to provide electricity for its plant, and in the process drowned seven Maroon villages. To house refugees, the government erected a shantytown called Brownsweg at the foot of the dam. At midday we rode a cloud of dust into Brownsweg, an unpaved slum of cramped huts, and stopped just long enough for a broad-shouldered Maroon named Frits von Troon to squeeze in beside me.
The road climbed and the bush thickened and closed overhead, as if we were navigating a dank green tunnel. Neville and Frits had me pinned in the backseat; at every bend, I found my nose in an armpit. Neville was tall, lean, and elegant, but Frits had the muscled torso of a man who works outdoors and a belly that seldom met a meal it didn’t like. He was twenty-eight when the Alcoa dam destroyed his home. “Very bad not-good thing,” he said. Relocation and the mining operation broke up families; jammed enemies one on top of another; triggered an explosion of malaria, prostitution, and environmental destruction; and separated the Maroons from the forest resources that they depended on.
The road entered Brownsberg Nature Park, and we stopped in a clearing overlooking Brokopondo Lake. The jetlike roar of howler monkeys punctuated the humid afternoon, and when I asked Frits how many we were hearing—to me, they sounded as indistinguishable as the roar of cars on a freeway—he said, without hesitation, “Eight. He frowned at a hole that had been hacked through the forest wall so tourists could see the lake, which stretched so far into the distance that I felt as if I were watching the ocean. Then he surveyed the canopy again. “Is very nice,” he said. He sounded as if he’d come home—which, in a sense, he had.
In 1971, the country’s forest service hired Frits to help create Brownsberg, Suriname’s first national park. For six years, he built sleeping lodges, cut trails, chased poachers, inventoried flora and fauna, and “learned the botanic.” Then he left Brownsberg to work as a wildlife ranger deep in the interior. In 1980, a brutal military regime took control of the country, and several years later, the Maroons rebelled. Frits returned to Brownsberg in 1990, when the country was buried in civil war, and found the park abandoned and overgrown. He made a unilateral decision to reopen it himself. He spent a year and a half clearing the road with a machete. Once, six rebels beat him and left him for dead. A civilian government won elections in 1991; by the following year, when the Maroons signed a peace treaty, Frits had Brownsberg open for visitors. Today, it is the most popular tourist destination in Suriname, a source of jobs and a biological treasure chest—home to jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, peccaries, some three hundred species of birds, and so many plants that not even Frits has identified them all.
Frits emerged from those troubled times with a reputation as the best tree spotter in Suriname (for one study alone, he identified more than ten thousand individual forest plants), and today he is the Amazonian guide of choice for international researchers. In fact, Mark Plotkin, the Harvard-educated ethnobotanist and author of “The Shaman’s Apprentice,” told me that he considers Frits von Troon “the foremost lowland tropical rainforest botanist in South America.”
I followed Frits along the broad trail to Irene Falls, slipping into a small parade of locals (Hindustani, Chinese, Indonesian) and tourists (French, German, Dutch). Frits walked slowly, limping from a bad left knee, and shared a word with everyone on the trail. Although he has never attended school and can barely read or write, he speaks four languages fluently and four more, including English, well enough to make a point. At the falls, we sat on rocks and watched families play in the cascade. “Is very nice,” he said again. For me, huddled in the cool ravine, with children laughing and monkeys roaring invisibly and forest soaring above us, the moment captured the essence of Suriname: intimate, vast, unpretentious.
We hiked back to the car and drove down to Brokopondo Lake. In Frits’s canoe, we wove our way south, and as the sun set into a sky splotched pink and orange and the full moon rose and the lake grew inky black, we landed at Tonka Island.
I spent two days at Tonka. They were immensely relaxing. In the mornings, I canoed and spotted kingfishers, parrots, egrets. And in the heat of the day, I read and napped in a beach chair and swam. At dusk I caught tucunari, or peacock bass, and at night took a cool shower and slept on a simple handmade cot with a mosquito net that I didn’t need because it was the dry season and there were no bugs. When I felt ambitious, I hiked twenty yards down the beach to the kitchen hut, where Romeo Gunther presided. While he cooked, he taught me Sranan Tongo, Suriname’s lingua franca, a pidgin of Dutch, Portuguese, and English that derives from the country’s slave-trading roots. The first word I learned was beeri, which Romeo kept chilled in a cooler. Like Frits, Romeo, who holds a degree in architecture from a German university, runs a guide service and knows Suriname’s vast interior intimately. One afternoon, while he chopped ginger and chillies, I asked him why he was also working for Frits.
“I love this man,” he said. “Anything he asks me to do, I will do.”
Frits opened Tonka in 1996 as what he calls a tourist camp. You could also call it an act of redemption—an attempt to recapture a way of life that Alcoa had destroyed. He and Tonka’s nine Maroon families felled trees and planed them into boards. By hand, they built houses, a kitchen, a shop, the dorm-style guest cabana. They installed a wind-powered generator, showers, and flush toilets. They cut trails for game viewing. And they share the proceeds: Frits’s twenty-three years as a wildlife ranger have convinced him that efforts to conserve “undeveloped” land succeed only if they assure the economic well-being of the traditional inhabitants, who are, in the end, its keepers. In Suriname, this means not only the Maroons but also the Trió, Wayana, and Arkurio Indians. In 2000, the Netherlands gave Frits the Golden Arc, its highest environmental award, for his work with these peoples.
At night, after dinner, we told Dutch jokes. They tell a lot of Dutch jokes in Suriname. The Dutch, who invented apartheid, were said to be the cruellest of the new-world slave traders, which is saying something. After the Maroons revolted, the Dutch imported indentured servants from China, Indonesia, and India. But the Dutch ran their plantations from afar—from the Netherlands—and thus created no landed class in the colony, and no capital base. That’s one reason so much of the country remains undeveloped today, and also why it enjoys a reputation for ethnic tolerance. Everyone descends from slaves or indentured servants.
From Tonka we pushed south, upriver into Sipaliwini, a huge, sparsely inhabited district. At dusk we hailed Awarradam, the river’s farthest outpost. Much like on Tonka Island, six local Maroon families built Awarradam by hand, and they now manage it under the auspices of a government agency called the Movement for Eco-Tourism in Suriname, or METS.
The following night, we visited another Maroon village, Kayana, where Frits has helped local guides build three tourist cabins on a bluff overlooking the river. He and the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) have also helped the villagers domesticate wild plants and they’ve begun work on a clinic that will use medicinal plants from the forest.
After dinner, the Kayana women fêted us with the badamba. Remember the lambada, the Brazilian dance that resembles vertical coitus at a hundred miles an hour? That’s the badamba dressed for church. “The badamba, this is the women who are not married showing you all the things they will do to you,” Romeo explained. “Badigga-badigga-badigga—you will think, if this happened to me in bed, it would kill me.”
We assembled in the dirt-floored community hall, illuminated only dimly by candlelight, and with the village drums pounding, two middle-aged but surprisingly strong Maroon women grabbed me by the arms and thrust me into a sweaty gaggle of Maroon maidens, their bottoms gyrating like honeybees. I was the lone male until Frits jumped in. His bad knees appeared to have plenty of badigga left.
From Kayana, we flew a hundred miles south. For most of the flight, I could see only solid bush. Then the river valley gave way to hills and granite domes and then, suddenly, circular patches of cleared ground—gardens—and the sprawling, dirt-brown village of Kwamalasamutu.
Twelve hundred Indians live in Kwamala, as it is called, but no one knows how many tribes they represent. Ten to fifteen is a good guess. The largest groups are the Trió and Wayana; the most recently arrived are the Arkurio, who wear loincloths and paint their faces with catlike whiskers.
American missionaries founded Kwamala in 1975, and as the Indians filtered in from the bush, they hunted out the surrounding forest and grew dependent on handouts. When Frits arrived, in 1984, they were reduced to eating hummingbirds and toucans, which he calculated they were killing at a rate three times what the forest could reproduce. But he calculated, too, that capturing forty live birds—a sustainable limit—and selling them to collectors would generate a cash return that exceeded the food value of 120 dead birds. Kwamala made an agreement with a bird dealer, and today toucans fly in the forest.
Indeed, as I walked around Kwamala, ducking my head into dark, smoky huts where women were spinning cotton, or watching men carve a forty-foot cedar trunk into a canoe, I saw evidence of Frits’s work everywhere. He built a solid two-story office for the community leaders. He and Neville Gunther brought in specialists to install a system that pumps potable water into the village. Last year, ACT completed a mapping project, the first of its kind, in which the Trió used GPS equipment to identify their traditional hunting and gardening lands; cartographers converted this information into a map that will be critical in defending Kwamala’s rights against the gold miners who are working their way up from Brazil. But the most ambitious ACT project I saw was the clinic and school that Frits built near the airstrip. Three elder shamans—the last repositories of traditional Trió knowledge—man the clinic, which is so popular that it’s open seven days a week.
Whether tourism will ever play a significant role in Kwamala is another matter. Frits brings in only one group a year. Air travel is expensive. My accommodations, in the ACT office, were bare bones. There’s not much to do. And Kwamala’s poverty is heartbreaking.
But at twilight, sitting on the gentle rise that overlooks the village and the vast forest beyond, I felt a visceral connection to an ancient and disappearing way of life. Kwamala is not a Disney version of Amazonia; it’s the real face of Amazonia as it is today. Not romantic, not sentimental, but genuine. That alone made the trip worthwhile.
METS envisions a string of lodges across Sipaliwini, and if they are all of the calibre (CE) of Palumeu, a half-hour flight northeast of Kwamala, that plan might well succeed. Palumeu is rustic—everything in Suriname is rustic—but a cut above Awarradam and even Frits’s Tonka Island compound: The cabins are larger, the baths private, the niceties nicer (lantern-lit paths, morning coffee at the door), the bar animated, the setting—on the west bank of the Tapanahoni, as pristine a rainforest river as you are going to find—spectacular. In the late afternoon, I went down to a thatch-roofed platform cantilevered over the river, dove in, and then settled into a hammock with a book and watched the sunset light up the opposite bank, a hundred feet away. Until you have seen the sun set on a wall of rainforest, you have not seen green.
When I was in Paramaribo, the director of METS had described the agency’s efforts to integrate the resorts with a Trió village a hundred yards downriver. I was skeptical. But my reservations about the resort’s benefits for the Trió were dispelled when we took a day-trip far up the Tapanahoni, to the Wayana village of Tepu. As with Kwamala, American missionaries founded Tepu, but they’d disappeared. The village had no jobs, no school, no help. It was in desperate shape. Just walking around in the midday heat, staring into one blank face after another, filled me with despair. Then Frits took me by the arm and led me to a pile of planks that his crew had cut. They were for an ACT office. He had plans for Tepu.
In the early evening, as we canoed back to Palumeu, we saw harpy eagles, toucans, howler monkeys, grey egrets, anhingas, kingfishers, yellow-tailed blackbirds. We weren’t twenty minutes from the resort when I caught that unmistakable whiff of jungle cat, so powerful it cloaked the river for half a mile. “Jaguar,” Frits whispered over my shoulder. To this day, I can’t tell whether my involuntary shiver revealed a frisson of fear or joy. In any case, the cat never did show. He didn’t have to. An hour later, as I stood in the shower sipping a cold beer, I found that any doubts I had about comfortable resorts coexisting with the Big Wild were long gone.
Excerpted from the American travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveler (August 2002). Subscription information: www.condenet.com/mags/trav.
[kader, kop] Seeing Suriname
The quasi-governmental national park service, Stinasu, offers excursions to Brownsberg Nature Park, (www.stinasu.sr). The Amazon Conservation Team office in Paramaribo can arrange trips to Tonka Island (www.amazonteam.org). For travel deep into the interior, the Movement for Eco-Tourism in Suriname, or METS, has packages to Awarradam and Palumeu (telephone +597 477088; www.metsresorts.com). You can find more information on travelling (C.E.) to Suriname on the nation’s U.S. embassy website: www.surinameembassy.org.
Condé Nast Traveler